You are gutted. It is not all that bad though. Deep inside you and all over you are thriving colonies of trillions of unseen beings of different shapes and sizes in constant state of activity. They are a 1,000 times smaller than a pencil tip. Some look like bowling pins, while some others are round like bowling balls. Some look like jellyfish and spring onions. If you can, like Martin Scott in the Innerspace movie, shrink and become small enough to travel inside the human body, you will reach a sci-fi universe where you will meet heroes and villains, devourers and sustainers, psychics and soldiers—around 100 trillion teeny-weeny living organisms that represent 5,000 different species.
There are bacteria and viruses, good and bad. There is yeast and other fungi and parasites. Trillions of bacteria. Paired with other tiny organisms like viruses and fungi, they make what’s known as the microbiota, or the microbiome. This system affects and even determines crucial factors that impact and determine the state of your body and mind. The gut microbiota hosts over three million genes with 150 times more genes than the human body. Some of the residents of the gut, such as the ancient archaea, have existed even before humans arrived on earth and can survive in stomach acid, which can dissolve metal. There live bacteria in the gut that eat other bacteria.
There are the Lilliputian bacteriophages that infect specific bacteria. Most of these organisms live in the intestines and colon. Put all together, they determine an individual’s capacity to fight disease, digest food and govern mood, and psychological functions. A baby hardly has a gut microbiome to speak of although it does have a ‘microbial fingerprint’. It develops the foundation over the first seven years of a person’s life, depending on the circumstances of birth, where he or she lived, diet and more. The gut microbiome keeps changing throughout your life depending on these above-said factors. It is connected to the entire body and organises counters to harmful bacteria, viruses and chemicals that threaten health and lifespans. A study by Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology journal pointed at gut bacteria’s impact on the human brain.
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It discovered the communication channel with neural, endocrine and inflammatory mechanisms between the gut and brain, most of which is established in the first three years of life. Ojas—described in Ayurveda as the finest product of healthy digestion—is mentioned in ancient texts as having the quality to coordinate the convergence of the mind and body. The gut, also referred to as the gastrointestinal system, consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. Medical science is shining its searchlight inside the teeming, pulsing, fluctuating universe called the human gut, and is making startling revelations that is changing the understanding of human biology.
The latest insight is that the gut health has a crucial role to play in the recovery rate of Covid-19 patients with a poor gut microbiome. Respiratory viral infections have been known to negatively impact the gut microbiome. “Our gut flora has a diverse bacterial colony. It is these bacteria that determine the immunity of an individual and also ensure that we have a balance of all different neuro-transmitters for the vital function of the body—dopamine, serotonin, melatonin and more. About 60-70 percent of our neurotransmitter secretion happens in our gut,” says Dr Manoj Kutteri, Wellness Director at Atmantan Wellness Centre, near Pune.
IT TAKES GUTS
How intestinal health affect the body
The gut is the biosystem inside you. It is the first line of defence and the largest interface between the host—in this case, a person—and the outside world. After birth, the gut is the first point of entry for environmental and dietary influences on human life. Thus, the microbiota in the gut plays a crucial role, as it contributes to development and maintenance of our immune system. “The gut determines overall health because it is the site for absorption of nutrients and our largest defence mechanism. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to suffering from gut-related disorders because of restricted diets and lack of physical activity. Probiotics can act systemically to augment the innate and adaptive immune system and reduce the incidence of infections,” says Dr Neerja Hajela, Head of Science and Regulatory Affairs, Yakult Danone India Pvt Ltd.
While we initially thought of the microbiota as relatively simple organisms, the fact is that they may not be so simple after all. Gut microbiota can be as personal and complex as a fingerprint. There are more bacteria in your gut alone than cells in your entire body. Healthy bacteria actively interact with the host immune system in the gut. They contribute to the barrier between disease-causing microorganisms or infections introduced via ingestion. They also help prepare the host immune system to defend the body.
The wrong mix of microbes, on the other hand, can contribute to many digestive, immune and mental health disorders and even obesity. “All diseases come from the gut and what you put in there. Sometimes there is overgrowth of bad bacteria or growth of opportunistic pathogenic fungus. It is important then to reset or repair the gut. Gut is basically one of the main defence systems of the body and if that is compromised then it can adversely impact your chances of fighting a deadly virus such as Covid, or anything else for that matter,” says Dr Anjali Hooda, Director, Livenutrifit & Centre for Obesity and Longevity, Delhi.
THAT BAD GUT FEELING
How to tell if you have a poor gut microbiome
Health professionals and research scientists have concluded that bad gut health leads to crippling diseases. This is because gut health is crucial to all body functions. Every person’s gut microbiome is as unique as a biometric scan, and is pre-destined depending on genes, gender, diet, personal hygiene, activity levels, living environment and life experiences. Together or in parts, these can determine your immunity quotient.
Incidentally one of the first assessments an Ayurveda physician makes of a person’s health is by determining the distribution of the three doshas at birth (Prakriti) and their state of balance (Vikriti). The causes of developing an unhealthy gut are mostly associated with modern lifestyle diseases, poor diet, unsupervised and frequent antibiotic use, chronic stress, excess travel, poor quality of sleep, excess caffeine intake and alcohol and recreational drug use. In a healthy person, bacteria, yeast, and viruses that live in your gut coexist in balance. Poor health happens when the bad bacteria defeat good bacteria leading to gut dysbiosis (as opposed to symbiosis)—the reason why the gut is called the ‘invisible organ’. Also, excess antibiotics nuke microbiota.
LISTENING TO GUT INSTINCT
Why Ayurveda is good for digestion
Ayurveda considers all food as medicine. Its solutions for regenerating the gut bionome and keeping a healthy mind and body, lays emphasis on the relationship between biology and Nature. Ayurveda identifies three energy forces of Nature, or doshas in a person as determinants if health—pitta, the energy of digestion; vata, the energy of movement, and kapha, the energy of lubrication. Dosha imbalances bring ill health. Nature plays a huge role in this ancient science; food has to be consumed according to the seasons, with each one having different impact on the doshas. For example, heavier root vegetables and spices are recommended in winter as grounding elements, especially for vata body types, which possess the space and air element that becomes imbalanced by the cold. To maintain a good gut bionome, Ayurveda prescribes fresh locally sourced foods that nourish the prana, or life energy. Processed or old food stored in the fridge is considered tamasic that cause dullness and lethargy.
Abdomen’s role in health
The gut is a highly versatile entity. It is a thriller scriptwriter—you’ll find that often the bad guys are the good guys. For example, bad guy E.coli is actually doing good stuff in some locations of the gut by prompting the body to regenerate a fraying gut lining. It can counter negative effects of antibiotics if you have the right diet to go along with it. It is an astrologer who can predict your body composition—medical scientists can calculate whether you’re lean or fat by analysing the composition of your gut microbiome with 90 percent accuracy. What you are is what you eat; so what you eat is what the trillions of bacteria in your stomach eat.
Diet and nutrition specialist, founder and CEO of Nutracy Lifestyle, Dr Rohini Somnath Patil, says, “The proportion of good and bad bacteria in your gut can affect your moods and anxiety levels. When you are stressed, your gut microbes affect the regulation of neurotransmitter and barrier functions. Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises calm you, decrease anxiety and improve your mood which decreases the stress response in the body and decreases inflammation.” Poor gut health comes with a dismal directory of illnesses such as gas and bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, mood disorders, anxiety, poor concentration and sleep quality, skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis etc, sugar cravings, chronic fatigue, weight gain and obesity.
“Your gut immunity has to be very good for you to ward off any illness. It is your barrier to bad health. The waste product of the body is expelled through the gut. So if the barrier is broken, what is supposed to be expelled can be reabsorbed as toxin and compromise your immune system,” says Dr Hooda. Most of the body’s production of serotonin—happiness neurotransmitter—that governs mood and sleep is produced in the gut. A gut out of sync could block nutrient absorption causing you to gain weight by overeating, affect blood sugar levels, and worst of all, store fat in the body and insulin resistance.
In an article, Marvin Singh, MD, an integrative gastroenterologist in San Diego, California, concluded that poor gut health and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune liver disease are related. According to the Seattle-based Sanitation and Food Security NGO Borgen Project, 21 percent of diseases in India are water-related. Around 99 million people have no access to safe water. It also notes that though the government is succeeding in its sanitation drive under the Swachh Bharat Mission, data-fudging remains an issue while monitoring open defecation -free areas.
NOT GUTS NO GLORY
How to get your stomach in shape
An army marches on its stomach. In human beings that army is inside the stomach. Connected to the brain through the vagu nerve, your gut is the relay station of the activity that goes on in the body. Genetically evolved residents of your gut such as the trillions of microbes, thousands of bacteria species, viruses, protozoa and fungi are there to greet the food that arrives in your stomach. These are your biological bodyguards— killing toxins and breaking down indigestible foods and drugs; blitzing infections. “It can be tempting to think of the gut or GI (gastrointestinal) tract in isolation. However, it is involved in much more than just digestion.
Just like a supercomputer with millions of connections running simultaneously, the human body is way more complex with scientists discovering new facets regularly. No one part works in isolation. One of the most interesting concepts is the top down (brain to gut) and the bottom up (gut to brain) communication,” says Simrun Chopra, Deep Health Coach and Founder of Nourish with Sim, Delhi.
It is not difficult to repair a damaged gut environment. Lowering your stress levels is the first step. Life coaches recommend meditation, yoga, walking at least an hour a day, getting almost eight hours of sleep, and spending quality time with friends and family or even keeping a pet. “The microbiome (bacteria, viruses etc) in your gut impacts your quality of sleep.
When their numbers decrease, health issues start emerging. It creates havoc for your physiology,” says Delhi-based sleep medicine specialist Dr Raghuvir Singh. A proper diet is critical to perfect gut health. A quick breakfast or lunch break is not doing your gut any favours. Drinking plenty of water is a must. The mucosal lining of the intestines benefits from proper hydration. Take a prebiotic or probiotic, which boost the growth of good, gut bacteria, but give probiotics a miss if you have a bacterial overgrowth condition such as SIBO. Anyone who has cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, rashes, nausea, fatigue, and acid reflux should be checked for food intolerance. Identify and eliminate foods that are causing the symptoms. A fibre-high diet is the gut microbiome’s best friend. Opt for no or less processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods and plant-based foods and lean protein. Recent studies have found that intermittent fasting is also beneficial.
GUT WRENCHING TALES
Why India needs its healthy gut microbiome
Gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhoea and constipation are on the rise in India, not to mention other serious ailments related to the colon, abdomen and of course, cancer. Poor nutrition is a major cause. ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2020’ report notes that 14 percent of India’s population or 189.2 million people are undernourished while 34.7 percent of the children aged under five are stunted. Poor sanitation is still a challenge. Gut health is not a well-developed area of research. In 2019, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) sought Rs 150 crore from the government to create a representative healthy Indian gut microbiome.
The project will study tribal ethnic groups, which have not been exposed to modern lifestyles and environments. Also, the revival of Yoga in India could go a long way in promoting gut health. Asanas like Dhanurasana that balance the gut are recommended by practitioners. Dr Varalakshmi Yanamandra, Ayurvedic practitioner and health coach, says, “The effect of meditation on gut health provides a lot many benefits, as meditation turns on the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ response. This reduces digestive issues by maintaining a healthy gut barrier.”
The worrying thing is that the human gut is shrinking. Gut diversity is falling at a drastic rate, driven by rapid urbanisation, antibiotic use, lack of exercise and excess indoor living. Medical science’s understanding of the function of the trillions of organisms in the gut microbiome is even smaller than the tiniest microrganism. Hippocrates, the father of modern western medicine, is famously quoted saying, “All disease begins in the gut”. Another Hippocratic Oath to eat healthy and respect what goes into the system could be a new wellness philosophy.
Can You Heal It?
Eat More Fibre
High-fibre diets have always been linked to longer and healthier lives. But now they are being linked to healthier gut microbes.
✥ A fibre diet boosts the number of good bacteria in your gut
✥ The good bacteria make the walls of your gut thicker and stronger
✥ The chances of a leaky gut are reduced, and harmful microbes and toxins don’t get into your bloodstream
✥ The good bacteria aid in digestion and lower inflammation throughout the body
It is suggested that healthy adults should eat between 20 and 35 gm of dietary fibre each day. 50% of your fibre intake should come from cereals, 30-40% from vegetables, 15-16% from fruits and the remaining 3% from other minor sources.
✥ Reduce stress. It affects the balance of your gut bacteria
✥ Focus on fermented foods, particularly plain, natural yogurt. They enhance gut health and reduce bad bacteria.
✥ Exercise. It increases gut bacteria, boosts vitamin and mineral absorption
✥ Eat diverse food, to get a diverse gut ecosystem
✥ Remember, antibiotics also kill good bacteria in your gut
✥ Eliminate foods that damage the gut lining
✥ Eat foods that reduce inflammation
✥ Get enough sleep, to improve the crosstalk between gut and brain
✥ Water has a positive effect on the balance of good versus bad bacteria in the gut. So drink.
✥ Eat foods rich in polyphenol, coffee, cocoa, dark chocolate, green tea, to improve the gut microbiome
✥ Eat whole grains. They contain non-digestible carbs that can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.
✥ Reduce sugar. High sugar intake disrupts the balance of microbiota, raises inflammation, reduces
Quick facts on your microbiomE
The human body has more microbes than there are stars in the Milky Way
You have 1.3X times more microbes than cells in your body. They are staggeringly diverse, with 10,000 different species.
100 trillion microbes live on and in you, especially in your gut
Your microbiome is unique to you, like your fingerprint. Reason why we react differently to diseases and treatments.
Your gut microbiome can weigh up to 2 kg
95% of all the microbes of your body live in your GI tract
The gut microbiome is increasingly seen as an ‘invisible organ,’ crucial for our health
Your gut microbiome is spread across your gut lining, from mouth to anus, the surface
area being the same as two tennis courts
High-fibre foods: Legumes, beans, peas, oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, and leeks have a positive impact on gut health
Garlic and onion: These are anti-carcinogenic with immunity boosting powers that relate closely to gut microbiome functions
Fermented foods: Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, tempeh, miso and kefir have significant quantities of probiotics
Collagen-rich foods: Bone broth, salmon, certain lean meats, mushrooms and good dairy boost gut health
WHAT DOES A HEALTHY GUT MICROBIOME MEAN?
✥ That there is harmony and balance between human cells and microbes (and not eradicating microbes)
✥ That there is right balance between good bacteria and bad, at 85 percent to 15 percent ratio (approx)
✥ That the balance in gut microbiome is not disturbed (dysbiosis), leading to diseases
✥ That there is no leaky gut, or gaps in the gut lining, so that toxins cannot get into the body
✥ That there is high diversity in gut flora. Lack of diversity depletes the gut.
“All diseases come from the gut and what you put in there. Gut is basically one of the main defence systems of the body and if that is compromised then it can adversely impact your chances of fighting a deadly virus such as Covid.”
Dr Anjali Hooda, Director, Livenutrifit & Centre for Obesity and Longevity, Delhi
“Our gut flora has a diverse bacterial colony. It is these bacteria that determine the immunity of an individual and also ensure that we have a balance of all different neuro-transmitters for the vital function of the body.”
Dr Manoj Kutteri, Wellness Director, Atmantan Wellness Centre, Pune
Poor gut health comes with a dismal directory of illnesses from bloating, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, mood disorders, anxiety, poor concentration to sleep quality, skin conditions, sugar cravings, chronic fatigue and obesity
Medical science is discovering that the human gut is the ultimate regulator of body functions that determine all health vectors—from obesity, sleep disorders, anxiety, skin conditions and food intolerance to even Covid-19 related diseases